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Sobering facts on used glass bottles in Hong Kong

By Fiona Donnelly, Director of RedLinks

Every day in Hong Kong, an equivalent of some 400,000¹ ‘standard’ wine bottles end up in landfill. Or to put it another way: only one glass bottle in ten is recycled.

The issue of the ‘one-way container’ – that is drinks and food imported to Hong Kong for consumption locally – is very real, and is about to spill over as Hong Kong’s three active landfills are nearing capacity. Hong Kong residents need to change their behaviour urgently, for glass bottles and much more, and dispose of their waste in a responsible and sustainable way.

But glass is natural, what’s the problem

Yes, glass is 100% natural, so it doesn’t have the dire polluting issues associated with other waste streams; glass in a landfill will take hundreds of thousands of years to break down, but it is inert and will not cause any toxic leaching. The thing is glass is an asset so why bury something that has value and make it a costly ‘landfill tenant’ forever?

Glass is infinitely recyclable as its quality does not degrade with successive uses. You can sterilise and refill glass bottles indefinitely and its quality will remain. For the next best reuse alternative – melting glass bottles down to make new glass bottles – glass bottles are still an asset, because it takes less energy to make glass bottles from glass bottles, plus it prevents the consumption of more virgin materials.

Other ‘circular economy’ applications include the crushing of glass to make other products. Crushed glass = sand. While accepting that there are different types of sand with different qualities, sand from crushed glass bottles lends itself to a broad range of upcycled products including:

  • Eco pavers, eco-cement and other building aggregates (check our article about Tiostone, a social enterprise that produce eco-concrete bricks out of recycled glass!)
  • Water filters
  • Playing field applications and sand for bunkers on golf courses
  • Kitchen and other tiles
  • Wall insulation
  • Abrasives

What are the bottle necks, frustrations and challenges?

There are many; here’s just a few:

1) HK is effectively burying sand as we are importing sand Tonnes of sand imported over the last few years²:

2010: 1,418,119

2011: 1,484,402

2012: 1,374,877

2013: 3,517,913

2014: 26,128,877

2015: 7,659,017

Could we not crush more of the used glass bottles that we create, and displace the need to import some of this virgin material and thereby avoid the related emissions from transportation?

2) People in HK don’t know that glass bottles are recyclable in HK.

The ‘typical’ waste separation is the following: recycle bins deal with paper, plastics and metal only.

The fourth bin – for glass – is often located elsewhere, away from the other recycle bins. It’s tragic that the Government website isn’t more widely known. It is a superb resource that can help people find the proper disposal channels for glass as well as other ‘waste’ streams.

3) What to do with the empty glass bottles collected?

The ideal solution is to collect glass bottles, sterilise and refill them. Most of the production from HK’s 1,100 food and beverage manufacturers remains for local consumption³, so there is a little scope. Some local brands have programmes to address the reverse logistics required, but Hong Kong certainly doesn’t have the wine, spirits and beer industries that countries with very high glass bottle to glass bottle recycle rates do.

 

Even before you consider the ultimate use for the glass bottles collected, conversations quickly stall around the following concerns:
 

  • Cost of transporting glass bottles

This is a bit of a moot point in HK, given the relatively remote location of the three active landfills. Glass bottles are already being dumped at these ‘extremities’ of Hong Kong, so most alternative uses for the glass bottles would likely result in their transportation to a site that is less remote and hence involve a lower transport cost.
 

  • Noise created by putting glass bottles in recycle bins

Why don’t we make more use of the existing refuse collection points that are access controlled by gates? Install a community-sized bottle bank inside these areas and contain the noise to during the daytime and adding to the hum of the city.
 

  • Safety

Sorry, if we, as consumers, logistics people, waste handlers, F&B personnel among others are trusted to handle full bottles, then surely we can manage the empties too? Yes, there are health and safety and other practicalities to be considered, but let’s not make this the excuse for no action.
 

Hong Kong is taking positive strides to address the used glass bottle problem. A New Amendment Bill was introduced in May 2016⁴ that will introduce a levy that will be imposed on certain glass containers. The Government will collect the levy and use it to finance the sustainable collection and use of used glass bottles and other glass containers.
 

It’s a milestone moment for used glass bottles and containers in Hong Kong that has the potential to create positive change and impact to waste, consumption of raw materials, economic diversification, employment, air quality, innovation and more.
 

Cheers to that!

If, like Fiona, you also want to share your message via our blog, feel free to reach out :)

¹Calculation from figures from Government sources:

Average daily quantity (tpd) = 204 tonnes per day of glass bottle municipal solid waste, per plate 2.9 here.

‘The Administration has advised that one tonne of waste glass is roughly equivalent to 2,000 red wine bottles of 0.75 Litre in volume.’ per note 13 on page 21 here.

So it is the equivalent of 204 * 2,000 = 408,000 ‘standard’ wine bottles per day that go to landfill.
 

² From: Hong Kong Merchandise Trade Statistics – Imports, 27339 - Sands, natural NES 
 

³ From HKTDC Hong Kong Industry Profile
 

http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr14-15/english/bc/bc10/reports/bc1020160420cb1-791-e.pdf

Fiona Donelly is a concerned Hong Kong resident, who has volunteered in the used glass bottle space for some years. Her motivation to get involved was her guilt at the empty bottles that she creates.
 

Fionais the Director of RedLinks, a company that helps organisations achieve their goals, through being a boost to their strategic and operational business development function. And sustainability is an area of particular focus.
 

Fiona has also been volunteering for 5 years with Green Glass Green, an organisation that raises awareness of the issue/the limited solution in HK and develops new initiatives to promote more used glass bottle recycling.

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